Drummer John Henry Bonham (May 31, 1948 – September 25, 1980), known as “Bonzo”, was one of the most important and influent drummers of the 1960s and 1970s.
Member of the rock band Led Zeppelin, he was also a true superstar during the last decade of his life and, along with Ringo Starr of the Beatles, Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Keith Moon of the Who and Ginger Baker, he is considered one of the greatest rock drummers of all time.
Even today, he remains an inspiration to generations of drummers for his technique, power and groove.
Early years of John Bonham
John Henry Bonham was born on May 31, 1948 in Redditch, Worcestershire, in the Midlands of England.
He is the oldest of three children born to Joan Isobel Sargent and John Henry Bonham.
The Bonham family lives in a small house on the outskirts of Redditch in Hunt End.
John, his father and grandfather all share the name John Henry Bonham, but Bonzo’s father is known as Jack. Jack is a carpenter and helps run the family business started by his father: JH Bonham & Son, a construction company. John’s mother, Joan, runs a local newsagent’s store.
From a very young age, he was sensitive to rhythm and his interest in the drums quickly became obvious. At the age of five, he transformed practical household objects that were lying around into percussion instruments that he could tap on.
He built his first drum set from containers, pots, kitchen pans and a circular coffee can, which he beat with knives and forks, producing a snare drum-like sound.
At the age of ten, Joan gave him his first real drum set: a snare drum.
While buying a drum set for a teenager can be an alarming decision for any parent, John’s parents know that their young son has a true passion for learning the instrument. John received his first complete drum kit as a gift from his father at the age of 15.
John recalls later:
It was almost prehistoric… It was mostly rust.
Early drumming influences
John Bonham befriended another drummer who lived nearby, Garry Allcock, who may have had some influence on John’s drumming. Garry is a few years older than John and has already played with orchestras, he is particularly fascinated by big bands and jazz.
I never taught him any classes as such – I didn’t teach him at all – but we would sit in the front room with sticks and a practice pad and I would show him a few things. It was just a case of, do you know this one? I remember him playing on one of my snare drums and me saying, “For God’s sake, John, hold on!”
I thought he was going to hit through it so hard. – Gary Allcock
Like many aspiring drummers of his generation, Bonham’s musical awareness transcends rock and roll – his idols are icons of American jazz drumming such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich (whose careers date back to the 1930s), Art Blakey, Max Roach and Louis Bellson.
John Bonham’s pre-Led Zeppelin period
Bonham spent most of his youth in Birmingham, England, leaving school in his mid-teens around 1964 and working for his father’s construction company for a time.
At 16, he joined his first semi-professional group Terry Web & the Spiders. The group stands out for its outfits consisting of purple jackets made of velvet lapels in the style of the Teddy Boys.
He subsequently worked with a variety of groups, mainly based in Birmingham, including The Blue Stars and The Senators. It was with The Senators that John Bonham made his first studio recording with a pop song “She’s A Mod”, which is quite successful
By this time, Bonham was already an extremely powerful player, and in the Midlands his reputation as one of the loudest drummers in music was growing.
In 1965, he formed his own band, A Way of Life, in tandem with bassist Dave Pegg, who would later become a key member of Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull.
The same year he married Pat Phillips whom he met at a concert he played in Kidderminster when he was 16 years old. The couple welcomes their first child: Jason Bonham.
However, he left the band, A Way of Life, only after a few months and joined a blues band called Crawling King Snakes, whose singer was Robert Plant.
The two men became friends, and Plant was a great fan of Bonham’s playing.
Bonham became one of the most sought after unsigned drummers in England. After a brief come-back to A Way of Life, he returned to work with Plant, this time in a new band called Band of Joy, whose history includes a series of shows opening for American folk/blues singer Tim Rose and a series of demos that didn’t get them a contract.
The group broke up, but when Rose returned to England for another tour a few months later, he invited Bonham to play in his band.
At the same time, guitarist strong>Jimmy Page, a longtime session man who has been playing with The Yardbirds for nearly two years, is building a new band the ashes of this last one. Page is determined to take this new musical adventure to the next level and beyond.
By early 1968, John Bonham was building a solid reputation as one of the best drummers among Redditch region musicians and bands.
John’s drumming, which combines power, endurance, technique and stage presence, quickly stands out.
Nevertheless, he also became known for his way of playing as the “thunder”, breaking many drumheads. In many places, they set up a volume limit that cuts off the power as soon as the sound exceeds the set threshold. Bonham often exceeds these volume limits, turning off the power, which results in him being banned from playing again in many venues.
John Bonham and the birth of Led Zeppelin
In late 1965, John met Robert Plant when he joined The Crawling King Snakes (Robert was the lead singer) between his two playing periods with A Way Of Life.
Plant, born only a few months after John (August 20, 1948), was young and determined to “make it” in a successful band.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Page plays lead guitar with the successful band The Yardbirds, which he joined in 1966. Les Yardbirds are on tour in America and are led by Peter Grant.
After leaving strong> The Yardbirds, Jimmy decided to start a new band with the expertise of Peter Grant, in order to sign with a major record company. The talented bassist John Paul Jones hears about Jimmy’s new band and asks him to join.
From then on, Robert Plant is recommended to Jimmy as a potential singer for his new musical project. Jimmy Page followed this recommendation, finding Robert Plant to be the right person for the band, both artistically and personally. It is then Robert Plant who suggests including the drummer of his former group John Bonham.
At this time, John was touring the UK with American folk singer Tim Rose, making a good living. Jimmy Page and manager Peter Grant went to a Tim Rose concert at a club in Hampstead, North London, in July 1968 to see Bonham’s drumming. Impressed by Bonham’s set, Jimmy invites him to join the band.
However, around the same time, Boham also received other offers from well-known artists such as Joe Cocker and Chris Farlowe, who were able to offer him more lucrative perspectives financially.
Plant and Grant bombard Bonham with persuasive telegrams (eight from Plant and forty from Grant) sent to his favorite local pub: “Three Men in a Boat” in Walsall. Bonham finally decides to accept Grant’s offer.
John Bonham and the Led Zeppelin Years
The quartet was in place by September 1968. The newly formed group temporarily uses the name: The New Yardbirds to fulfill the commitments made by The Yardbirds earlier, which include a tour of Scandinavia. The latter was done on September 17, 1968.
A month later, the band, now called Led Zeppelin, is already in the studio recording their first self-titled album. The manager, Peter Grant, gets one of the few decent recording contracts in the history of rock and roll.
He negotiated an unprecedented $200,000 advance with Atlanta Records, as well as a hefty fee for the group’s concerts, while ensuring that the group remained creatively and financially free.
Led Zeppelin recorded seven more studio albums, most of which were recorded in various studios in Britain, Europe and the United States.
In 1970, the group recorded largely with mobile recording facilities at the Hampshire Manor at Headly Grange.
One of the most recognizable characteristics of Led Zeppelin’s music is their broad, dense sound led by the tight, powerful rhythm section of Bonham and Jones.
Page’s production and recording techniques play an important role in capturing John’s sound. For example, the drum echo effect in the song “When the Levee Breaks” from “Led Zeppelin IV” was born from Jimmy’s recording idea.
He records John playing his drums at the bottom of a staircase at Headly Grange using two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones placed at the top of the staircase, which creates this distinctly large sound effect.
Two months after recording “Led Zeppelin”, the band left for its first tour in America in December 1968. Bonham befriended Carmine Appice, the drummer of Vanilla Fudge (whose Led Zeppelin was the opening act).
Carmine introduces him to the Ludwig drums that he uses himself. John immediately liked the “big” and rich sound created by these drums. From then on, he will play exclusively on Ludwig drums for the rest of his career.
Above (from left to right): John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Led Zeppelin toured widely, playing hundreds of concerts around the world from December 1968 to July 1980, including eleven tours in the United States, four in Europe, two in Japan and one in South Asia (Australasia).
Between these tours, John comes back to England to attend the birth of his second child with Pat. Zoé Bonham was born in 1975.
During Led Zeppelin gigs, John Bonham plays his famous « Moby Dick » drum solo that sometimes lasts up to thirty minutes.
Showcasing Bonham’s vast creativity and incredible physical endurance, the solo is structured to include total improvisation, despite fixed notes and a closing.
The title “Moby Dick” is a tribute to the great white whale of Herman Melville’s eponymous novel. The drum solo was first named by this title when it appeared as the second to last track on the album “Led Zeppelin II”, released in October 1969.
Before that album, the solo is known as “Pat’s Delight”. The version of “Moby Dick” that appears on the album is actually an arrangement of various drum clips that Jimmy Page had recorded of John in the studio. These clips are compiled and edited into a continuous drum solo, later by Page.
Not everyone likes or understands a drum solo. So I like to introduce effects and sounds to keep them interested – like the ‘phasing’ on the pedal timpani. I try to play something different every night, but the basic plan is the same: drumsticks to hands, and the final build-up. I usually play for 20 minutes, and the longest I’ve done was just under 30 minutes. That’s a long time, but when I play, it seems to go by really fast. – John Bonham
Bonham’s instrumentation for live performances is unique and innovative. Starting in 1969, he increased the number of peripheral percussion instruments played on stage: congas, orchestral timpani, and finally a symphonic gong with which he brought the concerts to a close.
His performance of “Kashmir” at the Dallas, Texas concert in April 1977 earned him the title of the first drummer to use electronic drum synthesizers by The Dallas Times Herald.
John and his family live on their country estate called Old Hyde Farm in Worcestershire. John Bonham’s financial success allows him to dedicate himself to his lifelong passion: vintage cars and motorcycles. In the late 1970’s, he owned 21 vintage cars and stored them at Old Hyde Farm.
Some of these cars appear in the dream scenes of John Bonham in the Led Zeppelin movie “The Song Remains The Same” released in 1976.
He also owns “The Plough” pub in the nearby village of Shenstone, which he plans to convert so that he can drive his cars and motorcycles right behind the bar.
Death of John Bonham
In September 1980, the four members of Led Zeppelin began practicing for their first North American tour since 1977, which is scheduled to kick off on October 17 in Montreal, Canada. The band rehearsed near Jimmy Page’s house in Windsor, where they stayed.
This is the place where John Paul Jones and Benje LeFevre (Led Zeppelin’s road manager) discovered Bonham’s body on the morning of September 25th. Bonham tragically died in his bed while sleeping, at only 32 years old.